Why You Should Ignore the Prerequisites in Math Classes

You’ve seen the prerequisites part of a syllabus or course listing that begins:

To take this course you should have completed…

But what does that really mean anyway?

A prerequisite is a way to keep out the rubbish.

Have you ever sat in a class with someone asking tons of questions about things they should have known before signing up? To prevent this, instructors and institutions have instituted the “stay out if you’re going to get on everyone’s nerves” clause.

It’s called the prerequisites.

Prerequisites are a way out of a class that you didn’t want to take anyway.

Prerequites are designed in such a way to allow you to escape. If you have any apprehensions about taking the class at all, you can just refrain from ever signing up – because of the prerequisites.

Regardless of if you have the prereq’s, you can play this card. The course description reads: To take this course you should have completed College Algebra.

You can convince yourself using one of these:

  1. “I passed College Algebra, but only with a C. They probably mean that I should have made a B or C.”
  2. “I passed College Algebra with a B. But I was really uncomfortable about it. They probably mean that I should feel really good about all the content in College Algebra.”
  3. “I passed College Algebra with an A. But there were quite a few things I didn’t understand really really well. They probably mean that I should be really good with all of the stuff in College Algebra.”

See how you can talk yourself out of anything?

But there are no real prerequisites.

All topics of math can be learned independently. Every topic can be learned before or after any other topic. And every topic can be used to support as well as be supported by any other topic.

There is no order to this stuff. There is merely the order in which we learned it – one of a hundred bazillion ways that you could order it.

My little sister was interested in math in college. I suggested she take Linear Algebra, a sophomore level class, in her first semester. The course catalog listed three semesters of calculus as the prerequisites. I told her that Linear Algebra had nothing at all to do with Calculus and she should ignore the prereq’s.

She did.

She finished her degree in her way – following her interests. (By the way, she’s currently the Business Administrator in that same math department!)

Prerequisites are bogus.

Education and learning should be focused on what you’re excited about. It’s about following what the learner wants – and what he or she (or you) will engage with.

If you, or your kids, don’t want to do it, then don’t.

But if you do – then don’t let some nutty arbitrary prerequisite statement stop you! Or even slow you down.

Try it on this class…

The sweet and talented Keith Devlin is teaching an online course in Math Thinking soon that has a “Recommended background of High School Mathematics.”

Unfortunately those words sound like, “The prerequisite for this is high school math.”

The class is online and it’s free. If your teens are interested, encourage them to join. If you have a precocious pre-teen, see if he or she is curious. And if you have a GED or no high school math at all, jump in – if you want.

And the next time you’re faced with anything that looks like prerequisites, ignore them!

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4 Responses to Why You Should Ignore the Prerequisites in Math Classes

  1. This is the most ridiculous article I’ve ever read regarding math.

    No, you don’t need 3 semesters of Calculus to take Linear Algebra, but that doesn’t equate to “prereqs mean nothing.” If you are planning to take Calculus, you better have taken Algebra or else you are pretty much screwed.

    You use 1 example to make this general statement. I take it your concentration wasn’t mathematical logic!

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Jay.

      I would beg to differ though. You can certainly take Calculus and get a lot from it without ever having Algebra. In fact, you could learn a great deal about Algebra by studying Calculus.

      You might mean that in order to do the work and get an A you would need the prerequisites. Which may be true in most cases. But you certainly don’t need the prerequisites to learn a lot and keep yourself fueled for the next thing. The myth is that to learn means you must do well in a class. Learning is thought to be equivalent to successfully doing the required work as it is prescribed. And the perpetuation of that myth is what holds many learners back.

    • I’m not sure how this encourages low expectations, Jay. In fact, I think students haven’t been allowed to set their own expectations – which might be one of the reasons that we have prereq’s. If we could set our own expectations, as students, instead of having them imposed on us, we might be able to determine if we are indeed ready to take a class.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

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